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School Board hears suicide prevention program details

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Members of the Hernando County School Board heard the details of a program intended to prevent teen suicide at county high schools. Specifics of the program were presented at the board’s Jan. 10 workshop session.

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Developed in Utah, The Hope Squad program works with in-school trainers who then work with students to provide peer-to-peer support for students who confide that they are contemplating suicide. “One student will tell another that there is a problem and that they have decided on a solution, but don’t tell anybody, so there are two victims, the student who dies and the student who has to live with the secret,” Dr. Diane Kelly, master trainer for The Hope Squad and member of the Okaloosa County School Board explained to the panel. “The program trains students to recognize the signs of suicide and act upon those to break the code of silence among students.”

The program is also intended to build positive relationships among students, making it easier for potentially suicidal students to seek help and change the school’s culture surrounding suicide, she said.

This year, the program will be implemented in five of the county’s high schools, including Weeki Wachee High School, Central High School, Nature Coast Technical High School, Springstead High School, and Hernando High School. The total cost for the basic high school curriculum for five schools for one year is $2,000 per school or $10,000.

Stacy Swihart, Coordinator of Student Support Programming, told the group that while Hope Squad programming is available for schools from kindergarten through college, high schools were chosen initially because, according to research, teens may be most likely to contemplate suicide.
“Also, we thought starting with high school, we could reach other grades because middle schoolers look up to high school students, and elementary school students look up to middle school students,” she said. “We’ll see how this year goes and pilot it – our hope is to continue this and make this grow so that we can support all of our students.”

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Board member Linda Prescott welcomed the program. “I wish this was something I had when I was a teacher,” she said.
Others were not so sure. Mark Johnson questioned if a suicide prevention program was not already in place in district schools.
“We have a suicide manual, and we have training that the teachers receive every three years, but we do not have a specific training for students,” Student Services Director Jill Kolasa said. “We don’t have a peer-to-peer program specific to this.”

Board member Shannon Rodriguez questioned whether enough research had been done to demonstrate the program’s efficacy.
“In November of 2018, when The Hope Squad first came out, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) said that these programs are expanding without rigorous study to show how effective they are,” she said. “I have reservations.”

Finally, Hernando School District John Stratton asked the Board for approval for Kolasa and her staff to move forward.
Johnson and Rodriguez said they still had reservations about granting that approval, but “we have some consensus for training to move forward,” Stratton said.

Kelley told the board that according to research, suicide is the second cause of death among young people ages 10 to 18.
“The number one cause is accidents, and some of those may have been reported incorrectly,” she said. “Many of those may have been suicides as well.”
According to Kolasa, the Hernando County School District recorded one suicide in five years.
“One is one too many,” said School Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino.

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